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Kankakee Valley history, taken from hand-written journal, comes alive in play to restore historic river lodge

By MELISSA WIDNER
News Staff Writer
March 25, 2004

WHEATFIELD Before Sarah Miller was old enough to read she loved books. At her grandparents' house just north of the Kankakee River near Kouts, she loved playing with the dusty old volumes they had inherited from their home's previous owner and builder, George Wilcox.

Among them was one slim, hand-written item: a diary Wilcox kept between January, 1916 and June, 1917.

"Kate, his wife, had died by then," Miller told the story passed down to her by her family, who bought the home in 1924, "And all of his books were left in the book cases. He only lived another year or so after that."

An art teacher at Kankakee Valley High School for the past 32 years, and the daughter of a Walker Township teacher, Miller was raised to appreciate the value of the book, and of the local history that it contains.

"These were things I knew about all my life," she said. "Those were the books that I had."

When she joined the Kankakee Valley Historical Society, a group founded in 2001 to restore and reclaim lost river lodge heritage of the area, Miller knew the book would be appreciated.

Transcribing Wilcox's quill scribblings with the help of a writer at an area newspaper, the group published excerpts from the diary as a history book, their first of four publications, which have served as fundraisers.

Mary Hodson, co-founder of the historical society, said after reading the book, another member of the group thought it would make a great play.

From that was born "Yesterdays Kankakee, Pastimes and Pleasures of the Kankakee Through Story, Song and Dance," which will grace the KVHS auditorium Saturday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m. and the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso for a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, April 4.

"George Wilcox wrote a line or two each night," Hodson said. "The play is George Wilcox thinking back in time and going forward in time."

The group contacted Jill Steiner, drama teacher at KV High School, about helping put together a script.

Steiner and society members pulled from Wilcox's diary and other historical records to flesh out the people and places mentioned in the diary.

The play, a series of vignettes, which go back to prehistoric times and up through the First World War, includes tales of people locals will recognize by name, or as a relative.

Carla Staton, a DeMotte teacher and community thespian, plays Mrs. Cannon, one of the ladies of the area.

"She was a survivor in the cyclone," which swept through Hebron in 1917, killing several residents, Staton said.

Bill Riley, of Valparaiso, who plays Mr. Cannon, was chosen for the part by Miller, his mother-in-law, because he is a relative of the Cannons in the play.

"Their house was destroyed by the cyclone but they rebuilt. My aunt and uncle lived there after the Cannons moved out. My aunt was a Cannon," he said.

Another participant who has ties to history in the region is Bernadine "Babe" Goff of Rensselaer, a registered Métis indian an aboriginal group recognized in both the United States and Canada with roots of Potawatomie, Menominee and Cree.

Goff, who does historical re-enactments of trading posts and French settlers days, delivers a blessing in Potawatomie during part of the play.

"They've done the research," she said of the play Monday night, the first time she had watched scenes other than her own.

"It's from a white man's point of view but I'm overlooking it."

Goff said historians have trouble finding accounts of early history other than those provided by settlers because Native American culture was so overwhelmed by white culture.

"My father was born on a reservation in Wisconsin," she said. "When he was eight years old he was sent to white school and told he couldn't speak his own language, and ours is an oral culture.

"That's why I do things like this, to inject a small amount of our culture back into this."

Riley's wife Shirley, Miller's daughter, also knows first-hand how history gets lost.

Several of the scenes in the play feature Jasper County's Pittsburgh Club, one of the numerous river lodges that once graced both sides of the Kankakee.

In the play, the club is a symbol for historical events that happened at several of the river lodges, which served as a tourist destination for presidents, generals and the wealthy elite of the time.

As a child, Shirley Riley played in the Pittsburgh Club. "I ran around it when I was little," she said. "It was open, a great big room, and upstairs were the rooms where they slept in." "Inside it was dark brown wood, not light and bright like you're used to in houses.

It was like a guy's place, all dark and brown," she recalled. The straightening of the Kankakee River had one direct effect on the club.

"When I was there there were cars where the boats would have been. It was a big garage." Riley's aunt lived at the club, and shortly after she sold it, the club burned.

"A lot of history gets lost," said Bill Riley. The play may be a history lesson for some, but for others it is an example of how this community continues to pull together in times of need.

The grant the group obtained from the Prairie Arts Council required the community be involved with the project, which is why a casting call went out for anyone who wanted to be involved.

Miller had no idea the play would be so well received.

"This is great. I didn't think that we'd get that many people, and from all over the community.”

Actors and stagehands have come from as far away as Michigan City and Munster, though most are from the DeMotte, Wheatfield, Kouts and Hebron area.

"We have a big community here instead of what we started thinking about," Miller said.

Piper Bakrevski, who along with Mark Ladd directs KV Summer Theater, brought her skills and core theater helpers to directing and organizing the play.

Bakrevski said the project has been an interesting challenge with a young script, compared to the well-known theater standards, and so many first-time actors.

"I certainly believe it¹s going to introduce people to theater who might never have been on a stage otherwise," she said.

"Because of their interest in preserving the history they are trying to overcome their fears of being on the stage."

The play will also feature an elaborate rendition of a local celebration that took place in 1888.

Members of The Wrong Way Squares are performing the dancing and providing banjo and fiddle music for the scene.

"The neat thing is that everyone here is here voluntarily," said Hodson. "That just amazes me."

Tickets for the play's two performances are $10 for adults, $5 for children and seniors, ages 7 and under free.

They are available at the KV Post-News, the Kouts Town Hall, Brandy's Lock and Key in Valparaiso, and at the door.

All proceeds will go toward restoring the Collier Lodge, one of the area river lodges.

For more information, call 766-2302 or 464-1947.